Preparing for a New Wave of Students

I like meeting new people. So when I hear about the next generational waves that will be entering higher education in the next decade or two, I don’t hold my breath and duck—I’m more inclined to jump up and meet them head on.

But who are these new students coming our way? Demographers and marketing experts provide interesting insights into who will be in the incoming classes.

What the demographics say: greater enrollment, greater diversity

The demographic details tell a large part of the story. At a recent conference for student affairs administrators, we discussed some of the most telling data:

1)     Enrollment

In the next six years, student enrollment in four year colleges, private and public, along with other degree-granting programs, will increase. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that between 2013 and 2024, enrollments in degree-granting institutions will increase by 14 percent. That’s a lot more students entering college in just ten years.

2)     Racial and Ethnic Diversity
Though trends indicate that there will be a decline in Black non-Hispanic and White non-Hispanic graduates, they also suggest that more Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and American Indian/Alaska Natives are graduating from public high school. “Knocking at the College Door—a report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE)—projects that by 2019–20, 45 percent of public high school students in this country will be non-White, compared to 38 percent in the class of 2009. By 2025, Hispanic high school graduates will have increased by 68 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders by 58 percent, and American Indian/Alaska Natives by 28 percent since 2009. After high school, many of these students will go on to pursue a college education.

3)     Income Levels

The number of low-income students graduating from public high school is at an all-time high. Based on data collected by the NCES, in 2013, the percent of low-income students in U.S. public schools rose to a national average of 51 percent. We are already seeing more economically disadvantaged students enter our colleges and universities.

What the experts say: living life online

Looking beyond the numbers, we should also pay attention to how experts are characterizing the students that will soon come through our doors. I know that many of my colleagues in higher education do not believe that marketing expertise is helpful to an educational mission. But marketers do produce interesting insights that we can use to build our knowledge of the students with whom we will engage. 

Post-millennials, or what some refer to as “Generation Z” (generally defined as those born between 1998 and the early 2000s), are incredibly connected to and by the Internet and its products. Given our increased reliance on technology, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But the impact of this connectedness can help us understand even more about this next generation.

Scott Fogel, director of strategy at Firstborn Marketing in New York City, developed insights that arise from Generation Z’s prolific use of and comfort with technology. “What really separates Gen Z isn’t that they use technology, or what their values and dreams are—it’s how they choose to live their lives in digital,” he says [emphasis added]. Fogel reveals 3 particularly interesting characteristics of post-millennials:

·       Their time spent online is about more than entertainment—it’s about connecting to the world around them and developing and maintaining friendships.

·       They use online communities to feel connection and support.

·       They are unabashed users of online media, unafraid to be heard and to tell their stories. They display what Fogel calls an “intimate exhibitionism,” sharing who they are and what they believe in with the rest of the world.

Top takeaways: How do we prepare?

As we see in so many great works of literature, from Shakespeare to Colson Whitehead, a glimpse into a projected future can be fascinating. It creates an opportunity to change course, to innovate, and to respond to changes in our environment.

Given the data-based projections I describe earlier and the characteristics that seem to define post-millennials, how can student life professionals and administrators adapt campus environments to ensure that the next generation of students have a positive and successful experience? Here are just a few thoughts:

1)     Leverage interest in online social spaces. Given Gen Z’s propensity to share and build community via the Internet, educators and administrators should think about ways to leverage this interest in order to engage students—especially first-generation, low-income students—in sharing their lives and experiences with one another. I’m First, an interactive website supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook, is an excellent example of this type of work. The site features personal vlogs and blogs by first-generation students, Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, a portal to access “first-gen friendly colleges,” and more. Not only does this kind of online community help students feel more connected and supported, but it also encourages dialogue about the diversity of perspectives and experiences represented in student populations across campuses nationwide.

2)     Increase programs that celebrate first-gen students and support their unique experiences and needs. To supplement online methods of interaction and support, colleges and universities should also prepare to adopt and institutionalize programs that help students build advocacy networks beyond their individual campuses. 1vyGan 8-campus network led by and for first-generation studentsmodels this work, providing opportunities for students and administrators to collaborate in making campuses more accessible to low-income and first-gen students. This year, the annual 1vyG conference will focus on leveraging social media to advocate for first-gen and low-income student needs and voices—once again pointing to the importance of online connection.

3)     Create communications that reflect the goals and experiences of this new generation. As diversity on campuses grows, it will become increasingly important for students to see themselves clearly reflected in the brochures, websites, programs, images, and branding that characterize each institution. It is also essential that administrators and communications professionals carefully navigate campus traditions that no longer resonate with a new population in addition to messages that no longer reflect social norms. For example, if a school celebrates a decades-old tradition by referring to historical marketing material, does that material reflect imagery that is now widely seen as problematic? It will be important to train all marketing and communications personnel about who is coming to our campuses and the questions they must ask to ensure students feel included and represented.

4)     Create opportunities for students and alumni to connect. One of the most common things I hear from students at Yale and elsewhere is a desire to interact with models of success. They want to see and hear from people who were once in their shoes and who made successful lives for themselves. This is incredibly important for all students, but especially so for those who come from diverse backgrounds and experiences who might be the first from their family or community to pursue postsecondary education. Highlighting alumni with shared backgrounds will be critically important to making incoming students feel at home; connecting them to alumni through an accessible and robust social media strategy will also be key. Exposure to people whose stories and early experiences they identify with can help mitigate feelings of “I don’t belong” or “I’m not sure I can do this.”

Though the paths of these students will be different—some will attend public or private institutions, some community colleges—all institutions must be ready to support them in new and innovative ways. We should start by using programs and tools (like I’m First and 1vyG) that already work well, building off of their successes.

We should also challenge ourselves to constantly and consistently think about ways to make our campuses as inclusive as possible. Inclusivity breeds purpose, and purpose breeds passion. Passionate students succeed and lead; they create a future we can all be proud of.   

Join me in welcoming the new wave. And please share other ideas about what we need to track within the profession as our student population changes and these trends impact our campuses.